India’s movement toward independence occurred in stages prompted by the inflexibility of the British and, in many instances, their violent responses to peaceful protests. Many attribute the Indian Revolt of 1857 (known by the British as the Sepoy Mutiny) as the first battle in the struggle for Indian independence.
The 1857 Indian Revolt revealed the miscalculations of the British in understanding the social and cultural issues important to Indians. Indian soldiers called sepoys (from the Hindi sipahi) grew increasingly uncomfortable with the British encroachment on India’s states and provinces as the English East India Company expanded its influence in the region. In addition, poor wages and harsh policies made nationals increasingly tired of the British presence in India.
In 1885, the Indian National Union was formed, which became the Indian National Congress and had as its goal the moderate position of seeing more locals in political representation. The Indian National Congress (INC) was created to help ease the tensions in the British relationship with Indians after the Sepoy Mutiny. In the beginning, the INC did not contradict British rule, but in the face of increasingly egregious acts by the government, the INC came to identify with the independence movement. The INC would dominate Indian politics and house many of the early leaders of the independence movement including Gopal Krishna Gokhale, leading those in favor of dominion status and Bal Gangadhar Tilak, leading those who saw self rule as the only option. Throughout the impendence movement leaders emerged from among the Congress’ membership including Mahatma Ghandi, the leader of the non-violence movement, as well as Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of the new nation.
The push for independence occurred in three interconnected stages: the noncooperative movement, the civil disobedience movement, and finally the “Quit India” movement. None of these stages were rigidly defined; they naturally flowed into one another as a result of contemporary events. The foundational principles of the noncooperative movement included resisting the British by not buying imported goods, refusing to pay taxes, and not working for the British, rather than violence as a means of gaining independence.
A major turning point occurred in March 1930 with the Dandi March, which sparked the civil disobedience movement. In what many consider a stroke of political savvy, Gandhi chose the British taxes and regulations on salt as the issue around which to stage a protest. Every Indian, whether aristocrat or peasant, knew the value of salt, which was used as a preservative. Gandhi’s highlighting of the British monopoly on salt production helped showcase the issue of native choice in daily life. In a strategic move, Gandhi and seventy-eight supporters undertook a twenty-three-day journey by foot to Dandi, a coastal region where salt was abundant. Upon their arrival, Gandhi made natural salt, thus violating the British law that only imported salt could be used or purchased. Illegal salt was being made all over the country, and many Indians, including Gandhi, were being imprisoned for doing so. Salt thus became a symbol for the injustice and oppression of the British Empire. After the Dandi March, the entire nation became more aware of the fight for sovereignty from British rule.
When the British conceded independence to India, it came with such swiftness that many of the unresolved tensions were swept aside, only to come bursting forth later. Lord Louis Mountbatten (1900–1979), the last viceroy of British India, who was in good standing with Nehru, granted the demands of the Muslim League to create a separate state, Pakistan, for Muslims. Increasingly uncomfortable in Hindu-dominated India, many in the Muslim League had agitated for the formation of a separate Muslim state. At the time of his assassination in 1948, Gandhi opposed the partitioning of India, but the speed of independence overshadowed such concerns. Violence ensued as Hindus attempted to cross newly created borders into India, while Muslims fled to Pakistan, resulting in many deaths and clouding India’s long-awaited freedom from the British Raj.